The father of a good friend told me a story about coming to Japan for the first time in the mid-'80s to attend a large conference. On their last day in Tokyo, he and several colleagues decided to splurge at a traditional fine-dining restaurant and experience true Japanese fare.

After arranging reservations for an expensive $350-per-person meal through their hotel's concierge, they arrived at the small inn. Straining to sit on the dark-stained hardwood floor around a sunken fireplace, the men were eventually presented with individual braziers and an assortment of raw seasonal vegetables, fish and meat to be grilled swiftly by the customer, dipped in a tangy ponzu sauce and eaten not more than 10 seconds after having left the grill. Even the best home-barbecue cook among them had a difficult time not burning the potentially delicious morsels.

Most of the men gave up and waited for the courses to follow. A few more small dishes later, however, the meal ended with a bowl of white rice and some pickles.